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A Tool for a User-Generated Polyculture Pattern Language

This article describes the efforts of the Apios Institute to use our website to develop a user–generated pattern language of polycultures, sites, and species. It is part of our campaign to raise funds and get new members to make our website the tool we dream it can be. This article lays out quite a bit more about that dream: a tool to help people around the world to more easily design food forests based on polycultures of perennial crops.

Before we begin, here is a video providing an overview of what we hope this site will be able to provide:

Every food forest (e.g., diverse and intimate multi-strata agroforestry system, forest garden, tropical home garden, etc.) is a unique blend of species and polycultures. Though this diversity is one of the greatest ecological strengths of this food production model, it can be quite bewildering when it comes time to design your own. It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that there are some universal patterns to polycultures wherever they may be practiced around the world.

One of the big reasons that we are overhauling the Apios Institute website is to be able to capture information about these “meta-patterns”. Such a project is far too large for any one person, but a user–generated effort from our international community can build it together. Our vision for the upgraded version of our website is that it will allow users to identify these broad patterns. Then you will actually be able to search for examples of a particular pattern, like “living trellis” or “staple crop overstory” or “fodder bank” and see if there are examples suited to your climate.

Mimicking a system from another climate does not guarantee success. But I’ve been surprised again and again at the commonalities in polyculture systems between vastly different climates. In working on my recent book, The Carbon Farming Solution, I extensively researched tropical systems at the home and farm scale and found that the same design solutions we use in cold climates arise again and again: growing shade crops under taller species; utilizing seasonal sequencing so that one crop is active while its inter-crop is dormant, and vice versa; inter-cropping of nitrogen-fixing species; etc. Thus, I think we have much to learn from the patterns we have each developed, even if the particular species utilized are not suited to our own climate.

Food forest establishment with pigeon pea and sunn hemp. Earth Learning, Florida USA.
Food forest establishment with pigeon pea and sunn hemp. Earth Learning, Florida USA.

What can you do if the species in the model polyculture won’t grow for you? You can look at the basic components and then search for crops in your climate with the similar niche. For example, the pattern “staple crop overstory” might have initially been generated from a tropical system with avocado and macadamia in the overstory, and bananas and coffee beneath. Perhaps you live in a temperate climate. You could search for the plant niche “staple crop overstory” and find species like chestnut and sea buckthorn. This way we can learn quickly from successes in other climates.

What are the basic organizing units of this system? We will be building the website to address site, polyculture, and species levels.

First we might look for meta-patterns at the site level. What are the goals of the site: home production, subsistence farming, commercial farming, education and demonstration, research, or ecosystem restoration? Perhaps the site is a wild “reference” ecosystem that is naturally loaded with useful species.

What scale and level of intensity is the operation? Is it powered by humans, livestock, or machinery? What kind of site conditions e.g., slopes, soils, climate, etc. are in play?

What patterns of land use are being utilized? Here we’ll likely borrow from The Carbon Farming Solution to include the following broad categories and subsets:

• Perennial-Annual Intercropping Systems:

o Alley cropping, contour hedgerow, Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, windbreaks, parkland, living fences, strip intercropping, irregular intercropping, evergreen agriculture, riparian
buffers, water breaks, etc. )

• Perennial-Livestock Systems:

o Silvopasture, fodder trees, fodder banks, intensive silvopasture, livestock integration, restoration agriculture)

• Fully Perennial Systems

o Multistrata, living trellis, coppice, orchard, plantation, woody agriculture, perennial grains

Second, we look for patterns within the polycultures themselves. There are many ways to categorize polycultures, and the nice thing about a tag-based, user-generated system is that we can use them all, and invest more as we go.

They might be listed by layer, using the tallest species present as the identifier.

That is, the categories would be:

a) tree (any polyculture with trees),
b) shrub (any with shrubs but no trees,
c) herb (herbs but no woody plants),
d) vine (vines but no woody plants).

Polycultures can also be categorized based on the elements they contain. These elements include crop types and species, livestock, fungi, annual crops, abiotic elements like biochar or rainwater harvesting structures and aquatic elements. The patterns also must address uses like food, fiber, and fuel, and functions, like nitrogen fixation, groundcovers and pest control.

It would also be useful to understand the age, status, and management of polycultures. When were they planted? What design approach was used? Are they coppiced, burned, grazed?

Third, we need to develop an international language of plant niche for agroecosystems. Every part of the world probably has a nitrogen-fixing shrub that can be coppiced. Most regions have good fruits that can grow in the shade or groundcovers that serve as perennial vegetables in the shade. Development of these kinds of tags (“coppiced nitrogen-fixing shrub”, “shade fruit crop”, etc.) will make it easy to find the species to match the polyculture pattern you are seeking to emulate. Using tags, we can develop this language of niche.

We’ll start the ball rolling with the following patterns for form, habit and niche. The form would look at tall canopy trees, suckering species, and more. Tags might also look at the seasonality of growth, like warm vs. cool season emergence. Tolerances of shade and other site conditions are also to be addressed.

With this language of patterns in place and a fully searchable system, it will become much easier to design polycultures, including mimicking successful examples from elsewhere. Please consider visiting our campaign page, sharing our efforts or making a donation, or most importantly, joining us in our efforts to build this tool together.

Eric Toensmeier

Eric Toensmeier is the award-winning author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables, and the co-author of Edible Forest Gardens. He is an appointed lecturer at Yale University, a Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown, and an international trainer. Eric presents in English, Spanish, and botanical Latin throughout the Americas and beyond. He has studied useful perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over two decades. Eric has owned a seed company, managed an urban farm that leased parcels to Hispanic and refugee growers, and provided planning and business trainings to farmers. He is the author of The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security released in February 2016.

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